Book Review: Alabama: The Making of an American State, by Edwin Bridges

bridges_alabama_coverBridges, Edwin C. Alabama: The Making of an American State. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press in cooperation with the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, 2016.  264 pages. ISBN 978-0-8173-5876-1.  Trade paperback $19.95 (accessed November 21, 2016).  http://uapress.ua.edu/product/Alabama,6460.aspx

By Marty Olliff, Director of the Wiregrass Archives

I had never planned to review books in this blog, but I’ve taken that liberty for this new state history written by Director Emeritus of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Dr. Ed Bridges.  When an archivist/historian writes a book, other archivist/historians have an obligation to speak to it.

bridges_retFull disclosure:  I’ve known Dr. Bridges for a long time and deeply respect his integrity, knowledge, scholarship, and contributions to Alabama.  I consider us professional friends, but my evaluation of his work is not clouded by my admiration of his character and abilities.

Dr. Bridges set himself the task of writing a narrative for the upcoming Alabama Bicentennial (December 14, 2019) of Alabama’s prehistory through 2010 that well-educated avocational historians can access.  This means he has eschewed most  academic trappings (such as words like “eschewed”), footnotes, and a thesis-driven argument supplemented by historiographical explorations.  He synthesizes secondary sources rather than analyzing primary sources. His language is easy to read and he uses what some historians have called “sneaky citations” worked into the text, though generally to the most competent recent sources that are readily available.  He includes a short but thorough “Notes on Sources” in lieu of citations or a bibliography and a well-made index.  In the hands of a lesser author, this approach might yield a shallow overview, but this work is as authoritative as it is easy to read.

This book is physically impressive.  It is lavishly illustrated with 167 color and 122 black-and-white images, and is printed on heavy high-gloss paper.  Even the paperback is stitch-bound as if it was a hard back.

It is also well organized.  Dr. Bridges opens with a chapter on Native Americans, “The First Alabamians,” covering about 10,000 years through the excellent archeological sources produced by Alabama scholars.  After a second chapter covering 1700 to 1814 that examines Native Alabamian political and cultural formation and decline in the wake of European contact, Ed gets to his real scholarly strong suit – nineteenth century political history.  Through three chapters on the first century of Alabama statehood, Ed threads the needle of academic and avocational approaches to history.  He devotes two chapters to the twentieth century and follows with an Afterword that his audience should read before and after the rest of the book.

Alabama does not yet need another scholarly overview of the state’s history.  Alabama: The History of a Deep South State by Atkins, Flynt, Rogers, and Ward, now in its second edition, fills that niche at this time.  Instead, Bridges’s book fills a gap in the literature between academic histories directed toward scholars and college students and textbook histories aimed at the 4th grade.  He succeeds admirably in covering with poise and equanimity the state’s successes and its often-self-inflicted problems and failures.

But Alabama: The Making of an American State might disappoint those interested in the post-World War 1 era that was filled with as many significant changes as the nineteenth century.  This is especially true of Chapter 7, “Changing Times,” that covers 1955 through 2010.  Although it opens with a significant overview of the Civil Rights Movement, this chapter is far too hurried, with the sub-section on the economy reading like a litany of changes that beg for more explanation.  Part of the problem here has to do with the available scholarly sources.  There are simply too few that adequately cover Alabama’s history after 1965, a dearth reflected in the two short paragraphs devoted to twentieth-century sources (compared to four long paragraphs devoted to nineteenth-century sources).  It would take a scholar as deeply steeped in contemporary history as Dr. Bridges is in antebellum history to do justice to this era.  This is too much to ask of a single historian.

Even so, the editorial board of the University of Alabama Press rightly presented its McMillan Award for 2016 to Dr. Bridges for this book.  He has produced an exceptional work that belongs on all Alabama bookshelves because it makes an abiding contribution to the historical literature of our state.